David Caulfield

Learning+dev Mastery: 3. Stakeholder Engagement

This is a post from a larger series entitled A Path to Learning+dev Mastery.

The path to mastery looks something like:

Why should we care about other stakeholders in the organisation?

For most of what we do in our jobs, nobody cares as much as us. I think that's a good thing - it's great to be in a job we enjoy that nobody else is interested in. It makes us valuable.

Every so often, I land in the fantastic position where what I'm doing is so valuable to someone else that they care more about it than I do. And this is the position we all want - to bring as much value to our colleagues and organisation as possible. Going back to Learning+dev's purpose, we want to help others maximise their value to the organisation.

This is the power of frequent experimenting. Short, small ideas executed over time increase the likelihood you will land on an important problem. 1 person starts caring about 1 thing you're doing, then another, then 2 more. Eventually, you have lots of people benefitting from your work - a fantastic place to be as any practitioner.

Now, I could create and rollout 10 new initiatives to my organisation in the morning. But if they don't meet with the organisation's strategy, then nobody will care about it and it will become noise. Even if I land on something valuable, it will be drowned out.

This is where stakeholder engagement is so important. Engaging with your colleagues and creating initiatives without your primary stakeholders buy in is a sure way for failure. Without communicating with them, you increase the likelihood that your initiatives are not aligned with theirs.

However, once you get full alignment across the people who your initiatives will impact, then you end up producing valuable initiatives that push everyone in the direction they need to go in. What's more, you will get support from your stakeholders who will work with you to make your work successful. They won't push back against you because you failed to communicate properly.

Caring for stakeholders

Who are my main stakeholders?

There are many stakeholder engagement frameworks to help identify and prioritise your stakeholders.

Or my favourite stakeholder framework is the simple question: Who do I need to keep happy? If you know who to keep happy, your can focus your communication in their direction.

How do I engage with stakeholders for my strategy?

In my experience, the best way to engage your stakeholders is to present your initial strategy in slides. If you want, you can brainstorm with them, but only if the problem is crystal clear.

You can't ask your stakeholders "What do you think I should be doing?". It's not their job to think of what your job should be. So you must always come forward with suggestions, not a blank canvas.

Once you've presented some ideas (called a strategy), you can engage your stakeholders with questions:

  • How will this strategy help you?

    This will help you identify if your strategy is of any benefit at all. If everyone says "I don't think this applies to me", then that's valuable feedback.

  • Will these ideas support your own goals?

    You will get a response like "I don't think this will affect my own goals directly. But we can look at my own goals if you want?". This gives an insight on what your stakeholder cares about. You can throw ideas out as you talk about their goals.

  • I was thinking about doing X. What's your opinion on it?

    Open questions are good for giving people space to think and bring their own creative suggestions. They might say something like "That's not my understanding of the problem. I think we need to improve our programming skills in general - maybe create a workshop for it?". We know they don't need a workshop, but they have given us insight into the kind of problem we need to solve for.

The consulting process is an art. You need to build trust, get their buy-in, understand the other person's needs without them even knowing their needs themselves, lead people who are not interested in being led and much more. With this in mind, it's not a good idea to talk to someone and say "What do you want me to do?". I've fallen into this trap many times. Asking someone "What do you want me to do" is not helpful. You've just placed another problem on their shoulders. So when engaging with stakeholders, we must go in with a proposal. Even if you're not sure what they want, a proposal gives them something to push back against.

Overall, my strategy to engage with stakeholders looks like this:

  • Develop the strategy.
  • Show the strategy to all my stakeholders at the same time.
  • Talk to each stakeholder individually.
  • Note down thoughts, ideas, push backs, problems.
  • Repeat.

The last point is crucial - repeat. There is no such thing as a strategy that is done. What matters is that you get the critical items down on paper and agreed so that you can start to work. Too many people focus on "big bang" approaches to strategy. They fail to realise that tomorrow's environment is different from today's environment. Agility is key, and that means we develop mostly small projects. This way of working helps our stakeholders get on board. We can propose ideas that can get rolled out in a matter of days or weeks instead of a matter of months. Furthermore, a small project that gets rolled out and fails is much better than a large project that gets rolled out and fails.

Engage with stakeholders

Doing things now vs. later

As you engage in more and more conversations, you will develop a backlog. You will uncover the ideas and solutions that are important and put a timeline on them. Your timeline is subject to change as new priorities will arise.

I present a 12 month plan in January with the full knowledge new requirements will come in that will change the plan. This is why it's important to have a strategy attached to the business goals. New requests and requirements will always come in, so you need a way of priorisiting. Or in other words, you need a way of saying "No" to anything that does not align with your strategy.

The exercise of prioritisationg is key to a Learning+dev manager's success. There are an endless number of good ideas. Your job is to figure out what is most valuable to your business' strategy. You can use various different types of prioritisation methods:

Engage with stakeholders


The best way to engage with stakeholders is to just start talking to them. Whether it's a formal meeting in the calendar or a casual chat at the coffee machine, conversation is key to a happy stakeholder.

0 kudos